Phosphorus: it's the backbone of our DNA, the scaffolding of our bones, the life-giving-elixir of our agricultural fields. How can an element that is in every cell in our bodies, that we excrete every day, and that is eternally recyclable become a resource that may peak by 2030? Because we're using it wastefully, researchers say.
Phosphorus is used every day in farming as a fertilizer--it was elemental (yes, pun intended) in the agricultural revolution that boosted crop yields. This phosphorus is mined from phosphate rock, the main deposits of which are located in just three countries and whose output will be tapped in 50 to 100 years, researcher Stewart White explained to Miller-McCune:
"Right now, you can get phosphorus if you’re willing to pay for it," White said. "But global reserves will peak in 20 to 25 years. Africa has not stirred in terms of its phosphorus use. Africa could take off, and that’s very scary. We will continue to mine phosphorus. It’s just that if we want to extend the longevity of the resource, we’ll have to reduce extraction rates significantly and put in much bigger recycling."
Without sufficient amounts of phosphorus for fertilizer, the world's food supplies will drop precipitously, James Elser warned Miller-McCune:
"The scope and urgency of the time scale need to be narrowed down," Elser said. "I don’t think we have a really good consensus about the peak. Is this really an acute problem in 30 years? If this is true, then the human consequences are much more acute than anything we’ve seen with climate change, in terms of hunger. Food is food. We can’t live without it."
While phosphorus is recyclable, much of it gets washed from fields into the world's oceans or is lost to wastewater treatment plants after being excreted from our bodies. Also, a great deal of the phosphorus that is mined is lost to waste and inefficiency. Efforts to reduce this loss and recycle what we've used are the only ways to thwart this coming peak.